Richard Lugar: Always a great senator

Ordinarily, the defeat, or retirement, of an eighty year old senator who had served 36 years would be noted with respect, and quickly forgotten.  However, this is no ordinary time (to borrow Doris Kearns Goodwin’s famous phrase), and Richard Lugar has been no ordinary senator.  When I speak about my book,   I am often asked whether there are any senators today who can fairly described as “great.”  Richard Lugar always heads my list (along with Carl Levin.)  Many commentators have focused, understandably, on his superb leadership on foreign policy issues, particularly his collaboration with Senator Sam Nunn on the effort to ensure control of nuclear weapons.   But Lugar brought his trademark intellect, vision, creativity and independence to a broad range of issues.

He was elected to the Senate in 1976, after having been one of the nation’s best mayors.   Two years earler, he had sought the Senate seat held by Birch Bayh, and ran a remarkably strong campaign, considering Bayh was at the peak of his popularity and the Republican brand had been devastated by Watergate.   He entered what I refer to as “Mansfield’s democratized Senate,” where the seniority system still mattered, but new senators were expected and empowered to step up quickly when they could make a meaningful contribution.

Very few young senators ever had as much impact as quickly as Lugar.  He won an assignment to the Intelligence Committee, chaired by Bayh, his former opponent.   Bayh told me that Lugar immediately became one of the senators that he trusted and relied on most completely.   Within a year, he had joined another freshman Republican, Orrin Hatch, in spearheading the opposition to labor law reform, which sparked a true filibuster and one of the fiercest Senate debates in many years.   That was a highly visible role for a new senator, and an ideologically comfortable one for a rising Republican.  But just weeks later,  the Senate took up the wrenching issue of whether to provide financial assistance to New York City.    The Banking Committee had already said that New York would receive no more financial help,  and a tax revolt was sweeping the nation.  New York’s  Governor Hugh Carey and Mayor Ed Koch made a powerful case for additional loan guarantees, and New York benefited from the superb lobbying of two of the greatest advocates that the city could have had—Senators Jacob Javits and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  But it was freshman senator Richard Lugar who stepped forward to be the  architect of the  “tough love” package that made the financial rescue of New York possible, and laid the foundation for the city’s continued recovery and return to prosperity.   The next year, as the U.S. economy weakened, the Senate faced the decision of whether to rescue Chrysler Corporation,  and again it was Senator Lugar who played a key role in putting together the loan guarantee package.

That was how he started his brilliant career.  Fast forward to 2010.  The START nuclear arms treaty was in desperate trouble.  The Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and John Kyl,  were virtually united in their determination to reject the treaty and defeat President Obama.  It was difficult for Senate watchers to see how the treaty could obtain the 67 votes needed for ratification.   Only Senator Lugar made it possible.  Over a period of weeks, he made the case for the treaty so compellingly that 13 Republican senators eventually defied their leader and supported the treaty, making ratification possible.    Defying his party leaders and risking the wrath of the Republican right,  Dick Lugar epitomized the “courage and statesmanship” referred to in the sub-title of my book.

Senator Lugar  has always embodied the essence of what a senator should be.  He knew he was a Republican, and he never forgot about Indiana, but his overriding focus—-his North Star—was always the national interest.   He has stood, in the words that John McCain often uses, for “country over party.”   His Senate career will be celebrated long after his detractors have been forgotten.

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